Eric Lu’s explosive performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, capping his uneven recital for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts summer festival, reached a high point in a series filled with many such. Clean, pointed, propulsive, possibly even shaped with a feel for its wartorn 1943 origin, it showed off this 19-year-old native Bostonian and current Curtis student at his best.
Unfortunately, a great many moments in the repertory preceding—Mozart, Brahms, Handel, Chopin—inappropriately exhibited the racket of the Prokofiev. Inasmuch as Lu’s technique permits just about anything to happen at the keyboard, it may be safe to assume that his frequent near-banging constituted a deliberate choice, not only about musical style in the moment but also about forcefulness and current artistic identity. We heard little of the lovely consistency that obtained in his Walnut Hill Chopin Preludes from one year ago (the subsequent competition performance is here; do not quit before the last minute or two, ending with Lu’s strike of the final D at the “floor of hell”, as Andre Gide explained).
On Sunday night, Mozart’s Rondo K.511, with that composer presaging Chopin both expressively and harmonically, began unsettled, and lacked sway until it eventually became Beethovenian in its dramas, with Lu conveying darkness to the perfect arpeggios before the quiet close. The Chopin Barcarolle began in elegance yet turned unpolished soon enough, some moments almost coarse, phrasing not fully coherent. Lu did not resemble the pianist who produced the controlled, deep affection of this outstanding rendition.
Brahms’s Opus 118 also varied: No. 1 was rough, 2 obvious even with playing of notable evenness and beauty; 3, the big Ballade, did rock to its tremendous ending, while 4 was neither here nor there. No. 5 succeeded, with small problems of hand ensemble, but fully poised. Lu could not get the full measure of so black a piece as No. 6, which is unsurprising, and eventually he introduced needlessly spiky tone in the rousing central part, although the bleak return ended movingly.
One reason Lu’s inconsistency stands out more than it might with another pianist is that he’s such a pleasure to watch. Tall, graceful of bearing, ever so slightly stooped, with long supernimble fingers, he emotes and moves charmingly without overdoing it.
After intermission I anticipated that things might level out, to an extent. But Handel’s Chaconne, which can be quite a showpiece, with the potential for real majesty, sounded driven by a variable-speed motor, that is, overinflected; this might have been rhythmically almost okay but for the blunt phrasing. Louder than needed when loud, it seemed to get a sort of Busoni treatment. Lu took all of the echoed passagework fleetly. Chopin’s Opus 33 Mazurkas suffered from a certain stiffness almost throughout. No. 1 also became clangy. Nos. 3 and 4 ended excellently, the latter’s length winding to the rather gotcha ending.
And then that powerfully insistent Prokofiev. Lu relishes it, I’d say, and all of it: the unquiet opening, the warm Andante, the precipitous finale, which he took neither too fast nor too slow but just right.
The pianist’s encores, Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze in transcription and the first movement of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2, had been offered only days before by two other pianists in the festival. Lu’s choices may therefore have been intended to show what he had to add or correct—or they may simply have been competitive, to take shots at peers. If the latter, his rounds missed, falling quite short of the elegance and poise of Larry Weng and Artur Haftman. Some of Lu’s clanging in Sheep did ring out prettily, impressively, but other phrasing and ensemble were unlovely. The Chopin’s heavily accented passages rather galumphed about the singing part.
It should be interesting to see how this intriguing young performer evens out.
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.